I had my eyes opened recently when I tried to place an American student as an intern in a cleaning operation in Germany.
There are universities in the United States that offer degrees in facilities management. A facility management curriculum centers on construction, design, engineering and maintenance. Cleaning is an important but secondary subject.

To enhance their collegiate experience, I’ve been inviting the facility management seniors at nearby Brigham Young University to attend a day of our Janitor University course. It gives them a taste of what they will need to know when it comes to the cleaning side of managing facilities. Instructing these bright, hardworking students has been delightful. I’ve made it a project of mine to place them in internships around the country.

When a European facility colleague of mine was in Salt Lake City recently, I decided to ask him about the possibility of establishing an internship with his company. I thought it would give some student a great background in the international side of the business.

My German friend’s response was surprising. U.S. university students probably wouldn’t have skills to qualify for an internship in Germany. Why? “We have all kinds of laws and prohibitions regulating apprenticeships,” he said. Not just anyone can pick up a mop and call himself or herself a custodian. In other words, the Germans and other Europeans consider cleaning a skilled profession.

Cleaning is a craft
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit a cleaning school in Germany. If you want to be a custodian there you must attend cleaning school and serve an apprenticeship for an additional three years. This course is called “Practical Cleaning.”

If you want to run a cleaning operation, you must add on two more years to become what is called a “Master Cleaner.” The two additional years of training is called the “Theoretical Cleaning” course. Finally, after all that training, you must have a letter of recommendation from another Master Cleaner certifying that you are competent and would be an asset to the industry. Cleaning is a carefully planned career. The equivalent training course in the United States is offered at only one school, the “School of Hard Knocks.”

The cleaning school I visited is housed in an old Krupp Steel facility. In addition to teaching cleaning procedures, the school also researches cleaning methods as part of an ongoing commitment to use best practices.

I was astounded to see apprentices in the school with notebooks and pencils in hand, taking careful notes on how to lay out a room for refinishing and patterns to use when mopping. It was fascinating to be in a room full of young students who were excited about learning their craft and were open to developing their skills.

In my 30 years of conducting training in this country, I have never seen anything like it. The student’s future depends on how well they learn their lessons in school and on the job. The master in charge of the practical training class told me that the final examination at the end of three years is to perform a complex cleaning function. The student is graded on both procedure and results. Last year, only two students out of 29 passed the final examination.

From the United States, where two of the main components of custodial training are “resistance” and “opposition,” it was refreshing to observe the skill and passion involved in learning to clean.

What is clean?
Europeans seem to have a different attitude about what is clean. A satin-look floor is perfectly acceptable in commercial buildings, airports, convention halls, schools and hotels. It doesn’t have to look shiny.

In North America, our tendency is to judge clean by shine. Even if we are maintaining dirty, shiny floors, we go for the shine. The master explained to me that Germans don’t spend a lot of time installing shine, repairing shine or restoring shine. In fact, the only reason why he teaches his students how to care for shiny floors is because they may someday work for an American company.

Because Europeans worry less about shine and more about cleanliness, they seem to have smaller, lighter and more user-friendly tools. This emphasis on ergonomics goes hand in hand with cleaning processes that minimize the handling and use of water.

The way you are cleaning isn’t the only way it can be done, or should be done. You may want something better. Managers who look at what’s going on in the rest of the world will have a better understanding of cleaning.

John Walker is the owner of ManageMen consulting services in Salt Lake City. He also is the founder of Janitor University, a hands-on cleaning management training program.